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Re: [xmca] Ethnomethodology and Hedegaard's Article

David asks a great question - what did LSV mean in Chapt 5 (written about 1930) by the terms "pseudoconcept" and "functional meaning"?

Here is more or less how I read Ch 5 on the pseudoconcept, functional meaning, and other questions, subject to hearing how other's do. After all, I reserve the right to learn new things and change my mind - even after I have put up an argument. So there. :-))

First, functional meaning. If the five year old Jens and the pedagogue (his Kindergarten teacher) both pointed at a picture of an infant whale and agreed it was a "baby whale," that would be functional equivalence. The adult would probably (but not necessarily) be thinking of the term conceptually, and the child, complexively. However, regardless of how they individually and separately arrived at the common functional meaning, they would be communicating about the same object in practice. The same word is being used by both people to point to the same object. Functionally, therefore, their word usage would be equivalent - the functional meaning would be the same.

And herein lies the beauty of Vygotsky's developmental theory of concept formation. This brings us to complexive and conceptual thinking. While the adult may have been conceptualizing specifically whale calves (newborn and very young whales) in their intended meaning of the term, the child, who Vygotsky theorized is probably using mostly complexive thinking in the form of pseudoconcepts up through adolescence, is likely to be thinking of the meaning of the term differently. To the child left to their concrete-imaginative devices, many kinds of things besides whale calves might belong to the meaning of the term "baby whale."

In fact, everyday speech even among adults might employ complexes, and not concepts, in this kind of case. In complexive thinking, by a child or an adult, in addition to referring to whale calves, the term "baby whales" might include any relatively small whale, or when looking at a group of whales, might include the smallest one, regardless of age, or the youngest one, regardless of size. Jens, who seemed to want to learn things "conceptually," might have fit! Or would he? Hard to say from the evidence provided, but interesting to think about.

If I grasp Vygotsky in Ch 5, the tendency in complexive thinking is to think of word meanings not as concepts driven by rule-based categories, or by any such scientific conceptualization, but as groups of objects, features etc. assembled by employing shifting and not necessarily consistent rules - by associating, chaining, collecting, etc. Generally speaking, complex thinking employs forms of synthesis, loose association, generalization and even some limited abstraction processes that enable the person to engage in essentially completely concrete thinking unconstrained by overarching and unifying abstract principles.

But, and Vygotsky stresses this point, children live in a world where adults, cultural conventions and daily activity drive most of the word usage around them, so they learn to assign the right adult words to the right objects out of habit and necessity. School is especially effective at drilling children with these skills. This can create the illusion that children are thinking in concepts when they are in fact, according to Vygotsky, thinking in complexes.

Hence, the term "pseudoconcept." A pseudoconcept is functionally but not intellectually a concept - intellectually, that is, in terms of the verbal/mental operations employed, it is a complex.

In Vygotsky's view, it is not until adolescence (11 or so and on) that the schooled child begins to master conceptual thinking. But it does happen, and this is a major transformation in thinking processes - a huge accomplishment, and Vygotsky hails it as such. This is a key example, as Vygotsky will argue in Ch 6, of his core education thesis: learning leads development.

I might toss in here that Sylvia Scribner suggested in 1981 or so that while Vygotsky never mentioned this idea, writing and literacy specifically may be the decisive factor in the human development of concept formation, both historically and ontogenetically. In other words, writing in particular might be the operative factor in schooling's ability to teach children to master true concepts, and for humanity as a whole to enter an era of new kinds of thinking processes. She suggests that this transition in Western society may have occurred between the Homeric oral tradition and what may have been entirely new forms of conceptual thinking and speaking enabled by the newly invented phonetic writing tradition, exemplified by Plato's Dialogues. In other words, writing made philosophy possible. This implies that new psychological processes came into being. Thus, Vygotsky's theory of concept formation is not only about individual or ontogenetic development, it is also a theory of human social and cultural progress - and the evolution of the entire species.

Back to the pseudoconcept ... the pseudoconcept, as I read Vygotsky, refers to word usage where functionally equivalent correspondences between words and meanings are evident on the outside, but where on the inside of one or both sides of the dialogue lurks the concrete, creative, roving, and not-always-linear-logical associations of complexive thinking.

Vygotsky stresses, but only in brief suggestions, that adults as well as children often use pseudocomplexes in everyday activity. Has anyone done any research on this? That could be very interesting indeed ...

One of the intriguing features of the design of the Vygotsky-Sakharov blocks, the concept formation test applied in 1928-1929 or so to hundreds of children, adults and some schizophrenic patients - (this, of course, is the empirical basis of Ch 5) - was that even when a child was stumbling toward the right answer, if their reasoning was complexive, the existence of pseudoconcepts and other forms of complex thinking could be revealed by the testee's commentary to the tester, which was strongly encouraged. Vygotsky and Sakharov called this test the method of dual stimulation because the testee encountered not only the physical blocks, but a word system for meanings they had to discover. They did this by introducing the nonsense words that the blocks would be grouped under at the beginning. It was up to the testee to discover the relations that determined these groups by trying out different ideas and discussing their moves with the tester, who gradually revealed which block belonged to which group during the session. In the process of interacting with the tester, and telling them what their reasoning was for guessing at this or that grouping as they proceeded, their actual syncretic, complexive, preconceptual or conceptual reasoning was revealed.

In Chapter 6 (dictated from his sick bed in 1934), where he shifted the focus of his concept formation theory to the development of everyday and scientific concepts in children, LSV reported on subsequent experiments - such as complexive vs conceptual understandings of numbers and arithmetic, and the completion of causality statements ending in conjunctions such as "because" and "although" such as "the boy fell off his bicycle because ...", which revealed some striking differences between everyday (spontaneous, complexive) and scientific (schooled, conceptual) thinking and speech in pre-adolescent students.

Vygotsky seems to have largely or completely dropped the term pseudoconcept in Ch 6 - as well as the term potential concept, which is an especially interesting but difficult concept because no experimental results accompanied its introduction into T&S. In Ch 6 LSV began using the term "preconcept" for both terms instead, alongside his Ch 5-termed formations syncretic images (the impressionistic thinking of very young children), complexes, and true concepts.

Clearly, Vygtosky's concept of how concept formation developed was itself developing. The confusing numbering of stages in Ch 5 suggests to me that what became the third stage of four (abstract reasoning - analysis, partitioning, segregation - the second phase of he followed contemporaries like Groos and called potential concepts), may have been added on to an earlier draft of version of what became Ch 5 (probably a conference report), which may have not initially mentioned the abstraction process as a "stage", but when it was so added, the earlier sections were inadvertently not updated and renumbered accordingly accordingly. This is just a guess on my part. This is really just an empirical question of the editing and publishing process - but exactly what happened to which version and who did or did not do what may be a hard question to track down a decisive answer to. But surely, on this question of the contradictory numbering of the stages in chapter 5, David, Paula and I are not the first to ponder it? LOL Thousands have probably noticed it, not to mention, translators and publishers who have worried over it. It wouldn't surprise me if the editing error was in the original 1934 Russian version, and has been carried over ever since. But I am just speculating. Anyone know the story? I have an electronic version of Ch 5 (from MIA, courtesy of Andy) highlighted up - the discrepancies are actually quite glaring.

As David says, the four stage schema in some parts of Ch 5, but not others, which talk of only three stages, is 1) syncretic thinking, 2) complexive thinking, 3) abstract thinking (the stage where potential concepts appear), and 4) true conceptual thinking. Vygotsky emphasizes that these stages and their inner phases do not necessarily occur in sequence. In reality, they don't appear in the genetic sequence they are being presented in to understand their logical relations.

Vygtosky called stages 1) and 2) one root, what could be called the syncretic-complexive root. And he explained that stage 3, which could perhaps be called abstract processing, comprised the other root, and starts very early in life. Animals, in fact, are capable of certain rudimentary, wordless abstraction processes, and some contemporary psychologists called these potential concepts, such as when an ape when wanting a stick might grab other objects which resemble it qualitatively in some way. As a matter of fact, many of the terms Vygotsky was using for concept formation were borrowed and modified from the contemporary literature. Vygotsky also stresses that these two roots don't appear by themselves - they are generally found together. One root represents association, synthesis, and the other root mentally isolating, partitioning, analysis. Analysis and synthesis are both essential in all stages of concept formation. He was only separating the two roots out, he explained - (abstracting them out, to use that term in this context) - for scientific and analytical purposes.

Ch 6 (1934), with its introduction of two new terms not mentioned in Ch 5 - everyday thinking and scientific thinking - along with its fairly severe critique and revision of aspects of the way the stages were presented and explained in Ch 5 (1930) - suggests to me the possibility that Vygotsky was headed toward an even more thoroughgoing reconceptualization of his overall developmental "schema" - but that is another discussion.

I should mention that Ch 5 of Thinking and Speech represents, in several very important ways, both the inspiration and the tragedy of Vygotsky et. al. and their work on concept formation. This occurred to me as I was reading the very helpful chapter on concept formation by Van Der Veer and Valsiner in their Understanding Vygotsky (1991) the other day. First, and most important, there is the, beauty magic and power of the blocks, of discovering this extraordinary dimension regarding the psychological functioning of children and humans of all ages. It is a quite possibly a huge discovery, one that even CHAT today may not yet fully grasp. Vygotsky emphasized its importance. But these inspiring discoveries were hard won and accompanied by much tragedy. There was the suicide of Sakharov in 1928. The 1928-1934 period was one of terrible changes and blows to scientific life in the USSR, dispersing the cultural-historical research movement, among many other things. Vygotsky, of course, was deathly ill when he wrote and assembled Ch 5 and Ch 6, and Thinking and Speech as a whole, in 1934. And pedology, the study of children that Vygotsky's work on concept formation was aimed squarely at building, was abolished as a science in the USSR, along with all of Vygotsky's work, in 1936.

We are today still reconstructing that work, trying to pick up where Vygotsky, Sakharov and many other left off. We are still, literally, picking up the pieces. I quite thankful to Paula for her work with the blocks, which has helped me understand much more about them. I have always been very curious. Through her ISCAR papers and presentation, I got a list of their colors, shapes, knowledge of their very interesting history, etc. And now I am learning a great deal from her collaboration with David, whose insights into T&S and Vygotsky, and amazing work leading a team that is translating Thinking and Speech into Korean is giving me a terrific course in Vygotsky's most important book, and a much better sense of his theory of concept formation than I ever had. Xmca once again shows itself to be a marvelous platform for learning. Who needs textbooks, as Mike suggests, when we have so many original writings, and boatloads of valuable commentary and debate, and some of the best CHAT scholars, thinkers and enthusiasts in the world to discuss this all with on xmca?

Returning to the thread, I like that Mariane has pointed us so straightforwardly toward some of the core issues that are essential to Vygotsky's theorizing about the social situation of development, the SSD. And I like that David and Mike are holding in their hands at the same time both SSD theorizing and concept formation theory for mutual examination as we ponder Marianne's article.

At such an intersection of Vygotsky's evocative ideas, we can ponder many questions ...

What influence does the SSD have on concept development? (Vygotsky made a strong case, btw, that the mastery of true concepts was NOT a biologically-based change - brains did not suddenly get a lot bigger at adolescence, for example). What is the impact of schooling on concept formation? Why does it have that effect? Is it the reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, as Scribner suggests?

What about parents, family? What about social class (the affluent, the poor ... and everyone else)? And conversely, what influences do the particular forms of concept formation employed by an individual in a given time of their lives have on that individual's **experience** of their living SSD? How do "skills" and experiences with forming syncretic images, complexes, pseudoconcepts, preconcepts, concepts etc. **impact** social relations, emotional development, personality development? With what kinds of conceptual formations, just to toss out a provocative question, do adults verbally process emotional experience? Do things like social class relations influence this? How?

To bring this back to Mariane's article and finally end this rambling post with a couple more questions - and I think this first one is the core question that David was suggesting - through what kinds of psychological formations - syncretic images, complexes, pseudoconcepts, potential concepts, preconcepts, concepts, etc. - was Jens experiencing his day at Kindergarten? And similarly, through which of these kinds of formations - or others - were his pedagogue and observer experiencing him - and their own days?

I sure got lots more questions than answers!

~ Steve

On Mar 15, 2009, at 7:32 PM, David Kellogg wrote:


Context is a ragbag in linguistics too. Halliday tries VERY HARD to save it by using Malinowski (context of culture and context of situation). Widdowson does a much better job with "co-text" and "pre- text", but most of what we want to study is still "pre-text".

For DEVELOPMENTAL purposes, the answer to this, and also to the ZPD/ ZPL distinction, is right there in the book that LSV never wrote, "Child Development", in Volume Five. Not culture vs. situation or in- text vs. out-text, but social situation of development, the crisis, the new formso f mental life.

Oh, my note. Well, I meant that PSEUDOCONCEPTS are concepts for others, while true concepts have to be concepts for myself. You are right to point out that they are not functionally equivalent except in rather superficial interactions: the child who thinks a "baby whale" is a baby and not a whale will eventually be undeceived.

Halliday's example, "Some dinosaurs learned to fly and others learned to swim", which has a conceptual Darwinian interpretation and a concrete, complexive anthropomorphic one, will eventually be resolved in favor of the former, so they are not PERMANENTLY functionally equivalent.

But it takes a while! After all Linnaeus and even Lysenko basically have a non-conceptual, phenotypical interpretation of how dinosaurs learned to fly and swim. So functional equivalence is real and durable.

When LSV insists on functional equivalence (p. 144), I think he's talking about functional equivalence within Sakharov's experimental conditions.

Do you think LSV's reference to "three basic stages" on p. 134 EXCLUDES concepts? Or that there are THREE "phases" to the third stage, "abstraction", "potential concept", and "true concept"?

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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